Riley Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Riley Surname Meaning

The Riley name has both English and Irish origins.

In England the surname is locational, from the hamlet of Ryley at Altham near Accrington in Lancashire. The name derived from the Old English rygh leah meaning “rye clearance.”

In Ireland the O’Raghailligh sept was the most powerful sept of the old Gaelic kingdom of Breffny in present-day Cavan and surrounding counties. O’Raghailligh became O’Reilly and Reilly in Ireland.  But Reilly on its travels, in particular to America, often became Riley.

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Riley Surname Ancestry

EnglandLancashire was the origin of the Riley name in England
and Lancashire accounted for almost 40% of the Rileys in England in the 1881 census.

Lancashire.  In the 1881 census the Riley name was still mainly concentrated in towns and villages in east Lancashire along the Calder river and Ribble valley. An early spelling was Ryley:

  • Richard Ryley was born in Whalley in 1597 and died there in 1637 (the spelling, however, was Riley for the Rev. Thomas Riley, a Whalley minister who died in 1631).
  • while William Ryley, a Lancaster herald who lived around this time, was thought to have come from the Accrington area. His son John, born in London, was a Court portrait painter in the later 1600’s. His spelling varied between Ryley and Riley.

In the parish registers of Newchurch in Rossendale, the Riley name was almost uniformly spelt Rilay until the mid-1700’s.

The earliest Riley references were in Accrington. A Riley family settled at Fearnihalgh, later Hillock Farm, in the early 15th century and it became one of Accrington’s most important farms. High Riley Cottages, built in the 1600’s, was an early landmark of what was then still a farming community.

When cotton mills arrived in the 19th century, Rileys remained prominent in Accrington. John Riley was a Justice of the Peace in the 1890’s and made his home at Arden Hall. Edmund Riley, once a fishmonger, built the Post Office Arcade in the town in 1896.  “The Post Office Arcade, a covered walkway comprising 17 premises, was one of the first shopping arcades in the country. However, the venture was not a commercial success as the shops proved difficult to let.”


Burnley-based Riley Brothers, a family-run haulage business established in 1906, went bankrupt in 2016. 

There was a Riley outpost in west Lancashire, in Fylde parish near present-day Blackpool. John Riley married Margaret Hesketh in Poulton le Fylde around the year 1710. Rileys from nearby villages at Freckleton and Kirkham were to be found from the mid-1700’s.

Meanwhile Rileys in Liverpool and Manchester included Irish Reillys. There were more than 200 Rileys in the 1851 Liverpool census who gave Ireland as their country of birth. James Reilly was born in Liverpool of Irish parents in 1825 but as James Riley married Hannah Wovenden in Manchester in 1851. He was by trade a cabinet maker.

Elsewhere.  Rileys extended across the Pennines into Yorkshire and southward to Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Warwickshire.

Rileys were present at the Riley House Farm in Eyam, Derbyshire from the 17th century and possibly earlier. They later spread to the Derby area. The Eyam population was largely wiped out by plague in 1665 and the area is now most noted for its Riley graves.

Rileys appeared in a court case in Stoke near Coventry, Warwickshire in 1516. In the home of William Riley, John Riley was
hit by clay being thrown from a tile house and died of his injuries.

There were also Rileys at Foleshill nearby. William Riley was a butcher there in the early 1800’s and later Rileys were weavers. William Riley of the next generation was an early cycle manufacturer in the 1890’s. His four sons – Percy, Victor, Stanley, and Allan – introduced the first Riley motor car in 1913.

Ireland.  Reilly (or O’Reilly) is the 10th most common surname in Ireland. But the variant spelling Riley is rarely to be found there. There were only 15 Rileys in Griffith’s Valuation of the mid-19th century and fewer than 200 in Ireland today.

America. Most Rileys in America are probably of Irish origin. They may have been Reilly in Ireland. But shipping records suggest that 30-40% of the Reillys that came to America adopted the Riley name, either because they chose that spelling or that was what the immigration officer wrote down. The expression “Life of Riley” probably came out of the Irish American community.

Rileys in Maryland.  The Riley presence from Ireland started early here.

At the age of 20 Maolmordha Reilly from county Cavan departed London on the Bonaventure and landed as Miles Riley in Viirginia. He received land grants in Rapahannock county. His family story and descendant lines were recounted in Robert Riley’s 1999 book The Colonial Riley Families.

It was his son Hugh Riley who established the family presence in
Maryland. He was a carpenter by trade, also a farmer and land surveyor. Over the years he acquired the skills and funding necessary to become a successful land speculator.

  • one line via his son Hugh led in Maryland to Isaac Riley, a
    plantation owner in Montgomery county. Among his slaves in the Riley-Bolten House (as it is now called) was Josiah Henson. He was mistreated and ran away to Canada in 1830. Josiah’s autobiography served as a model for Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  
  • another line via his son Solomon led to the Carolinas and later Alabama. This line was covered in L. Colson’s 1985 book Riley Family History.
  • and a third line via his son Eliphaz led to Samuel Riley who
    fought in the Revolutionary War. Afterwards he became an Indian trader and agent in Tennessee and was adopted as a chieftain of the Cherokee tribe.

Other Rileys of this family migrated to Kentucky and southern Indiana.

Bennet Reiley, of unknown origin, was married to Susanna Drury in St. Mary’s county, Maryland in 1784 (the name was generally spelt Reilly and Riley during his lifetime). His son Bennet, born three years later, adopted the Riley spelling. This Bennet joined the US army at the time of the War of 1812, fought in the war against Mexico, and then headed west, serving as the military Governor of California in 1849.

German Rileys. James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet of Indiana in the 1890’s, was probably of German origin. Family tradition held that his great grandfather James had come to Pennsylvania from county Cork in Ireland. However, this James, it appears, had been born in Pennsylvania, in 1765, and was the son of German immigrants Paul and Louise Reylandt. Riley descendants moved from Pennsylvania to Indiana in the 1820’s.

Later Arrivals.  Many Reillys continued to take the Riley name on arrival in America. Those who did in the mid-19th century included:

  • Edward and Catherine Riley from county Cavan who arrived in 1840 and farmed in upstate New York. Their son Patrick was a pioneer of Custer county in Nebraska, arriving there in 1878.
  • Martin and Ellen Riley from Dublin who came in 1847 and settled in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Martin was a coppersmith by trade. Their son Matthew prospered as a lawyer in Bessemer, Michigan.
  • while Hugh and Ellen Riley left Ireland for Brooklyn, NY in
    1853. Their son P.F. Riley headed West and struck lucky as a silver miner in Montana.

Some English Rileys did make it to America. Jim Riley’s family had originally hailed from Warwickshire. His father was a cotton merchant in Manchester when Jim was born. Jim emigrated to San Francisco in 1876. It was said that his ship sank in San Francisco harbor and that he lost all of his family silver he had brought with him. Silver-less he did marry and settle down there.

Australia.  The first Riley in Australia may well have been John Riley, born on the convict ship Kitty in November 1792 in Sydney harbor.

Alexander Riley, descended from Irish Reillys in county Cavan, had departed London for Sydney in 1803. For a while he prospered there as a merchant and he did successfully introduce Saxon merino sheep into NSW in 1830. But he died just three years later in London.

Other Irish Rileys, this time from Manchester – brothers Patrick, William and James – departed for Melbourne in 1851. Patrick became a well-to-do land agent, but died at an early age in 1858. James pursued a career in the theater under the stage name of James C. Campbell. In 1859 James Riley aka James C. Campbell was accidentally stabbed during a performance.

New Zealand.  Arthur Riley departed Accrington in Lancashire for Melbourne in 1881, married there, and then settled in Wellington, New Zealand four years later. He established there a very successful design school.

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Riley Surname Miscellany

Rileys in Lancashire in the 1881 Census.  The following were the main towns and parishes in Lancashire with the largest number of Rileys in the 1881 census.  The main concentration at that time was in east Lancashire.

East Lancashire Whalley    502
Blackburn    445
Accrington    402
Burnley    192
Oldham    192
Major Urban Areas Liverpool    562
Manchester    517
West Lancashire Preston    200

Some Rileys in Accrington in the 19th Century.  The directory of 1818 gave the name of James Riley, a calico printer at Broad Oak.  He went on to reside at one of the houses at Breg Hebble on his marriage.  He died there at the ripe old age of ninety years, having brought up a family of six sons and three daughters.  He always wore a silk hat and tail coat.

James set up a timber yard and five of his sons were to work there (his eldest becoming a schoolmaster). James’s youngest son Joseph was a born musician and nothing pleased him better than to visit some neighbor’s house where he would entertain them on a piano or harmonium. His very soul was in the music that he played.  “His music now is silent” was an appropriate epitaph on his memorial card.

The Riley Motor Car.  Riley’s founder William Riley had remained resolutely opposed to diverting the resources of his bicycle business into motor cars.  So in 1903 three of his sons pooled resources, borrowed a necessary balancing amount from their mother, and established a separate Riley Engine Company in Coventry.  They successfully produced engines for several years before coming out with their first Riley motor car in 1913.

Riley motorcar sales grew rapidly in the inter-war period.  The Riley Engine Company produced 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines, while the Riley coachbuilders constructed more than a dozen different bodies.  Riley models at this time included:

  • Saloons: Adelphi, ‘Continental’ (Close-coupled Touring Saloon), Deauville, Falcon, Kestrel, Mentone, Merlin, Monaco, Stelvio, Victor
  • Coupes: Ascot, Lincock
  • Tourers: Alpine, Lynx, Gamecock
  • Sports: Brooklands, Imp, MPH, Sprite
  • Limousines: Edinburgh, Winchester.

Their sports cars became popular for racing at Brooklands in England and le Mans in France.

By about 1936, however, the business had become overextended, with too many models and too few common parts, with the Coventry factory having become outdated.  Riley was then rescued and taken over by William Morris and became part of the Nuffield Group.  Although production subsequently moved away from the Midlands, the Riley name and its motto (as old as the industry, as modern as the hour) survived until 1969.

The Riley-Bolten House in Maryland.  The Riley-Bolten House, known locally as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is a historic home located at North Bethesda, Maryland. Isaac Riley was an early owner of the house, the center of his 3,700 acre plantation.  He married there in 1818 to Matilda Middleton while he was acting as a guardian to Matilda’s younger brother. Isaac was 44 at the time and Matilda 18.

In 1795 he had acquired a six-year old slave named Josiah Henson on whom, over the years, he came to rely.  In 1825 Riley fell onto economic hardship and was being sued by his brother-in-law.  In desperation he begged Henson to help him out and Henson agreed and did so.

Afterwards Henson tried to buy his freedom.   He offered his master $350 which he had saved up and a note promising a further $100.  Riley, however, added an extra zero to the paper and changed the fee to $1,000. Cheated of his money, Henson fled to Kentucky and then escaped to Canada after learning that he might be sold.

Henson’s autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson Formerly a Slave, was the model for Harriet Beecher’s Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The Life of Riley.  The term “life of Riley,” meaning living a life of luxury, was American in origin and probably dated back to the early 1900’s.

The phrase cropped up as “life of Reilly” in the military during World War One.  In a letter from Sergeant Monzert of the American Expeditionary Forces ‘somewhere in France,’ an extract of which was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on May 26, 1918, he wrote that he and his pals were ‘living the life of Reilly.’

Theories exist as to its origin, for example from James Whitcomb Riley’s poems in the 1880s depicting the comforts of a prosperous home life.  But the Irish connection does appear the more probable. After the Reilly clan had consolidated their hold on county Cavan in Ireland, they started to mint their own money.  Their coins, called “O’Reillys” and “Reillys,” became synonymous with a monied person.  A gentleman freely spending was therefore “living on his Reillys.”

The phrase gained national significance with The Life of Riley, a radio sitcom of the 1940’s starring William Bendix which later became a long-running TV series in the 1950’s.  The initial script cast Bendix as blundering Chester A. Riley, a wing riveter at the fictional Cunningham Aircraft plant in California. His frequent exclamation of indignation – “What a revoltin’ development this is!” – became one of the famous catchphrases of the 1940’s.

John Riley in Australia.  John Riley’s grasp on the Riley surname was tenuous at best.  His mother Susannah Nairn had married Edward Reilly in London in 1784 (she had marked her name with an “x” on the wedding certificate) and they had had one son together, Thomas Riley, born around 1788.

Three years later Susannah was caught and subsequently accused and convicted of stealing ten muslin handkerchiefs. She was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia.  By this time husband Edward and son Thomas would seem to have disappeared from her life.

She departed to Australia on the Kitty in April 1792.  Whilst on board it was recorded that Susannah was delivered of a son during the journey.  In fact John Riley was born on the ship in Sydney harbor in November 1792 as the convicts were waiting to
disembark.  Who the father was is not known.  It was clearly not Edward Riley and may instead have been one of the inmates at Newgate jail where she had been imprisoned.  But Susannah continued to use the Riley name and was so listed in the convict muster of 1806.

In 1793 Susannah had in fact married another man, a fellow convict Robert Wells who thus became John’s stepfather, and they made their home in the Parramatta district.  Was this a marriage of convenience?  When she died in 1814 Robert soon took up with another woman.

In comparison with Susannah’s turmoil, her son John Riley went on to have a rather stable life in Australia. He married Catherine Lattimore in 1814 and they raised six children.

Their eldest son John took up with a woman named Catherine Becket around 1840 and lived with her for the next forty five years.  They apparently never married, although they may have had as many as fifteen children.

James Riley Stabbed on Stage in Melbourne.  James C. Campbell was the stage name of James Riley.  He had an unfortunate stabbing while onstage in September 1859.  Bell’s Life in Victoria reported as follows:

“A singular accident occurred on Monday night.  The piece being played was The Flowers of the Forest.  In one of the scenes Cynthia, a gypsy girl, played by Miss O’Reilly, had a struggle with the wolf, Mr. J. C. Campbell, the latter trying to wrest a poinard from her grasp.  In the encounter Mr. Campbell was severely wounded on the left thigh.

It is almost impossible to say how the accident occurred and even those persons sitting in the front seats did not observe that any wound had been inflicted until their attention was drawn to it by the cries of the wounded man.  Several of the spectators from the front seats then rushed on the stage and found that Mr. Campbell had fainted.

An examination at once showed that he had been stabbed slightly below the left groin. Dr. Dempster was sent for and his examination of the wound proved that though the knife had penetrated to the femoral artery, it had glanced off without severing it.

Miss O’Reilly who had been expressly shocked by this most untoward accident was, with the rest of the performers, very assiduous in her attentions to the wounded man.”

Miss Kate O’Reilly is thought to have been related to J.C. Campbell aka James Riley, being either a sister or a cousin.

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Riley Names
  • John Riley was an English portrait painter at Court in the late 1600’s.
  • Bennet Riley was the military Governor of California in 1849.
  • James Whitcomb Riley became known in America in the 1890’s as the Hoosier poet.
  • William Riley and his sons developed the Riley motor car that was popular in England in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Riley Numbers Today
  • 41,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lancashire)
  • 48,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 17,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

 

Riley and Like Surnames

Many surnames have come from Lancashire.  These are some of the noteworthy surnames that you can check out.

AinsworthBradshawLomasRiley
AshtonCravenPeelTravers
BarlowHollandPenningtonUnsworth
BoothHoltRadcliffeWhittaker

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